This story originally appeared in American Songwriter magazine, Jan/Feb 2009.
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He is sitting right there on the sidewalk, eating red snapper, heavy-lidded eyes taking in the world around him and engaging with the various people who wander up-looking for that gen-u-wine piece of downtown authenticity. Lou Reed has always been a perpendicular player: someone who strikes gold, then blows up the mine, and that defiance of commercial convention makes him the ultimate rejectionista, the judge of hipper-than-what-most-think-you-oughta.
Lollabelle, his rat terrier, is curled beneath his chair, half-alseep, half-taking in the passers-by. Mostly bored by life as the best friend of the man who made nihilism seem like a trip to Disneyland, switch-blading the bourgeoisie conventions with the dingy reality of the people living in the cracks, she waits.
He is here on the brink of the reissue of Berlin, the follow-up of his wildly successful David Bowie-produced Transformer. What should have been a slam dunk-even Bowie wanted to be Lou, as Lester Bangs tells William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age Almost Famous-was a star-making car wreck of catastrophic proportions.
The song cycle scandalized and appalled fans with its unburnished take on junkie life, bottom-feeding whore-tricks and an obsessive love affair that resulted in Caroline losing her children (“The Kids”) replete with the shrieking of producer Bob Ezrin’s own children, who’d purportedly been told their mother was dead upon returning home from school.
What was a momentum-killer then, now more than holds up in modern light. An operatic take on downtown street life, it examined complexities of lust and obsession, jealousy and addiction’s bottomless pit. Disconcerting to listen to-if only for the relentlessness of the writing and arrangements-Berlin is an audio vérité concept album that captures the rest of that celebrated “walk on the wild side.”
An acclaimed man about Manhattan, Reed is the paramour of performance artist Laurie Anderson, a regular at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, a compadre of Hal Wilner, a creative partner to John Zorn, John Cale and Bill Laswell, an alum of the Velvet Underground, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s circle and someone who seemingly knows every hipster, true blue-blood and creative engine in NYC.
With a Julian Schnabel film capturing the staging of Berlin-its own sort of Rorschach of the subconscious dream-states and impressionistic scenes the work evokes merging with the initial performances of the album once most charitably deemed “challenging”-it seems Reed’s reviled-at-the-time-of-release work is being vindicated. Not that he works for approval; indeed, he works to scrape all that’s inside him to be written.
As locals stopped and he exchanged neighborhood news, and caught up with people he rarely sees, Reed was not so much the snarling pre-punk, as much as a man respected for his uncompromising wrestle with his muse. With one of his most polarizing CDs-more so than Songs for Drella, Metal Machine Music, Magic & Loss or even the wildly pop New Sensations-finally performed in public, it was a good time to weigh the weight of creation, the reasons songwriting matters and how he views the reality of what he does.
As a writer, is it more important to be great, or true? What do you value?
Certainly those two words go together. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the real thing is: do you like it?
That’s pretty clean.
It’s kind of a weird thing to do…
It’s a very weird thing to do, and yet…
If you grew up listening to rock and roll songs, it’s kind of an obvious thing…
Because it’s the only thing worth anything. It’s immediate. It’s not like going to the movies is the same as listening to music. It’s kind of weird to even be thought of as a songwriter. “Oh, is that what I am?”
Do you think of yourself as a songwriter?
Then how do you think of yourself?
Artist. Sometimes, it’s with music and words. Sometimes, it’s photos. Other times, it’s electronics. Whatever it is… But being a songwriter, that’s pretty good.
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